The Black Dot Museum of Political Art
by Jean Smith
Halfway up an aluminum ladder at the back of the museum with an eight-foot length of oak in both hands, Nadine MacHilltop was more annoyed than startled when someone started pounding on the front door of the museum. Certainly there was no hint of apology for arriving fifteen minutes before the museum even opened, and it definitely wasn’t the is anyone there who would be so kind as to assist me even though I’m a total jerk for bothering you knock of a colleague. No; either the person banging on the door – a man, no doubt – didn’t dabble in manners, or he was simply unaware of how his behavior impacted others. One or the other, thought Nadine as she came down off the ladder. Or both.
Nadine dusted off the knees of her dark blue coveralls and crossed the small, windowless room. “Coming, coming, coming,” she muttered as the pounding continued. Pushing open the heavy wooden door, a tall, disheveled man with a large painting under his arm grunted and rushed past her, anxious to get in out of the rain. Nadine leaned out into the cool air, took a deep breath and listened to a Yellow Cab pull away from the curb. The swish of tires on wet pavement soothed her. The museum door creaked as she pulled it closed, blocking out street sounds – cars, sirens and the rain.
“I’m glad you’re here,” the man said, pushing back the hood of his navy blue rain jacket.
Nadine, a scholarly-looking woman in her fifties, pointed at the clock on the wall, intending for him to take the hint – specifically, to leave – or at least acknowledge that the museum was closed. Nothing. He stood there dripping wet, water beading on his obviously well-waterproofed sage-colored Hush Puppies. Nadine was momentarily transfixed by the way drops grew until surface tension broke and rivulets rolled thievishly off the milky-green pigskin to pool on the gray cement floor of The Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Yes, Vancouver was a good place to live if water was fascinating on any level at all, and to Nadine, it was. Everything about it enthralled her, amazed and engrossed her.
“We don’t open for another fifteen minutes,” she said, wondering where he got the nerve to pound on the door of a museum before it was open. Who does that?
“I have a submission for the show,” the man said, looking around the tiny museum, wondering why there was nothing on the walls. He rested his painting on the tops of his shoes, its back to Nadine.
“We don’t accept submissions through the front door,” Nadine said, crossing her arms, still waiting for him to leave. Glancing down, she cringed at the title printed in black felt pen on the wood of the cheaply constructed auxiliary frame – Forever Jung. Nadine didn’t essentially trust artists who painted on ready-made store-bought canvases. In keeping with grand traditions, Nadine believed artists should stretch and prime their own canvases – not run down to an art supply store to put another batch of blank slates on credit cards they weren’t going to pay-off at the end of the month, if ever. She believed that painting – the actual art form as opposed to the decorative panels hobbyists generated to sell in commercial galleries – should retain its nature, including inherent tactile difficulties. Paintings were awkward in a way that books and LPs were not. Yet painting was safe from nasty states of egalitarian oblivion that the computer had thrust other art forms of into. E-books and mp3s allowed everyone to enter what had been formal industries, to ply their mostly-substandard wares, thus cluttering up trajectories of the truly talented – those who actually deserved to be discovered, those who now co-existed in the ever-broadening obscurity that the masses ran towards, hurtling themselves into, lemming-style. “Come on in, the abject hopelessness of the artist’s newly diminished place in society is fine!”
The man leaned the painting against the reception desk, walked back to the door, pushed it open and pointed at the hinges. “That’s one hell of a squeak,” he said, gently moving the door back and forth to demonstrate, as if Nadine hadn’t noticed.
“It’s more of a creak,” she said, irritated with herself for failing to get rid of the man and his painting. “I keep meaning to get a can of WD-40,” she added, attempting to absorb the risk of conflict by taking responsibility for the door and its creak.
“You can get tiny cans of WD-40,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger three inches apart. Perhaps he wasn’t implying that being a woman – a small woman – she wouldn’t be able to operate a regular-sized can of WD-40. Regardless, her blood pressure started to rise.
“We only accept submissions as per the website,” she said, suppressing the urge to tell him that she didn’t need a man to fix a squeaky door – or anything else. In the ten years she’d been single, she hadn’t met a jar of olives, capers or tomato sauce that she couldn’t open. A couple of taps on the lid with the handle of her thirty-five-year-old Henckel knife – and voilà!
“I’m more of a face-to-face kind of guy,” he said assertively, yet he was actually quite surprised that he’d been let in before the museum was open.
“Well, we’re more of a follow-the-submission-guidelines kind of museum.” Nadine had hoped to never be in the position of evaluating an artist’s work while they stood there waiting. The wording on the website was supposed to prevent anything like this from happening.
“I figured that since this is an anarchist museum there’d be some leeway,” he said.
“It isn’t actually an anarchist museum,” Nadine said defensively. “Regardless, anarchy is not chaos.”
“I’m sorry, can we start again?” he said with a smile that clearly intended to charm her. A good-looking man about fifty-five with a square face and a cleft chin, Nadine thought he could be from a long line of potato farmers. “My name is Martin Lewis. I apologize for barging in like this, but I’d like to speak to the curator if she’s here.”
“I’m the curator. Nadine MacHilltop.”
“I thought you were the…” his voice trailed off as he looked around the room trying to figure out who he thought this middle-aged woman in bulky coveralls and work boots was. “I assumed you were putting up the picture rail.”
“I am,” Nadine said.
“Listen,” Martin said. “Let me give you a hand with that. I’m a carpenter and what you’re doing with that piece of oak is moderately offensive to me.”
Nadine looked at the badly bowed eight-foot strip of oak leaning against the ladder.
“How so?” she asked.
Martin took off his rain jacket and hung it on the coat rack. “You’re going to want to put the wood flat on the floor,” he said, heading across the room. “You don’t want to store wood with a big bend in it like that.”
“I’m not storing it,” Nadine said. “It’s been there about five…” Martin’s footsteps triggered the amplification system. He stopped and tapped his foot gingerly on the floor.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
“It’s the audio for the current installation,” Nadine said proudly, pointing at a dozen small speakers on the floor around the room. “It’s an abstract subtext, if you will.”
“The floor is cement, but it sounds like I’m walking on wood.”
“It’s a gesture recognition program that I’m running with strategically placed contact mics. Different gestures control different…”
“What’s the name of the program?” Martin said, interrupting her.
“I got the idea from The Young and the Restless,” Nadine said, not knowing if he thought Mooges was pure genius or her abstract subtext.
Martin frowned. “That’s a soap opera isn’t it?”
“They use the sound of the floor to exaggerate the mood. Mostly the mood of women clicking around in high heels, but it’s a viable tool within the limitations of a soap opera set.”
Not having any interest in soap operas, Martin changed the subject. “How come there’s nothing on the walls?” he asked. “Are you between exhibits?”
“The current exhibition is an installation piece.”
“Where is it?” Martin said, looking around the room. “What is it?”
“It’s a fable about crows and unicorns called Round One,” Nadine said, intending to speak at length about her debut installation.
“Yikes,” said Martin. “How exactly is that political?”
Nadine winced. “That’s up to the viewer,” she said flatly and declined to elaborate.
Martin stopped fooling around with the floor and walked towards the ladder. “What kind of mic are you using?” he asked.
“Unidirectional Boeing contact mics,” Nadine said. “They use them to hear cracks and stresses during construction.”
“Boeing?” Martin tilted his head. “As in the airplane maker?”
“That’s right,” said Nadine. “I was driving down I-5, just south of Seattle, and there was a sign for a public sale at the Boeing plant. It turned out to be a giant garage sale in one of the hangars. They were selling chunks of butchered aluminum and obsolete equipment. I found these beautiful aluminum cases that reminded me of Airstream trailers.” Nadine would have continued, but she could see that Martin wasn’t really listening.
Martin did a noisy little jig in the middle of the room. “It sounds like the floor of a barn.”
“Barns don’t typically have wooden floors,” Nadine said spontaneously, forgetting how much men dislike being corrected, but Martin didn’t hear her. He was happily tapping and thumping the floor. “The human brain focuses on sounds from intelligent sources,” she continued, regarding her explanation as a rehearsal for future visitors to the museum. “Sound from non-intelligent sources drops into the background. If I play the sound of a faucet dripping at the same volume as a recording of footsteps, the brain will focus on the sound of the footsteps.”
“Why do I get the feeling there’s a political philosophy attached to the floor?” Martin asked.
Nadine adjusted the two small sticks holding her hair in lop-sided French roll. “How do you mean?” she asked.
“Is it art or interior design?” Martin asked pointedly.
“Touché,” Nadine said, deciding not to defend her work.
Martin was the first person to comment on the sound system in the three weeks since she’d installed it. The museum only got a handful of visitors a day, and when they arrived, Nadine acted like a functionary – an administrator or an attendant. Not the artist.
“How many people work here?” he asked.
“Just me,” Nadine said. “The four guys who opened the museum had an unexpected brush with success. They moved to New York.”
“Success can be such a drag,” Martin said sarcastically. “I feel for them, man.”
The Black Dot Museum of Political Art had been a joke amongst the four painters who shared the space – a running joke – until one of them randomly applied for funding to open a very small museum. As a studio, the thirty by forty foot windowless room was loosely divided with easels and bookcases. Unsold paintings were used as partitions, affording each painter some privacy amongst his personal affects – books, magazines, jars of brushes, drawings scribbled on beer mats. None of them could be called tidy and in the three years since art school graduation, clutter had reached hoarder status.
There were definite advantages to working with other painters – shared expenses, critiques, bulk purchases of supplies and help lugging paintings – but there were drawbacks too. They endured the unselfconscious behaviors of other artists in the throes of creativity. Like paper-thin walls at a cheap motel when you want to get some shut-eye, noise in the studio was always an issue. The sound of another human doing normal human things was a great distraction.
Adam, Mark, Bruce and Jeff would have preferred to work in silence, but that was a luxury they couldn’t afford. They needed space to paint loose and large. They lived communally with writers, musicians, filmmakers and other painters, renting small rooms in the old family homes around Vancouver’s Commercial Drive where their housemates partied most nights and always slept as late as they could before going to their restaurants or retail jobs.
The four met as students at Emily Carr, the regional art school. More precisely, they met at Opus, the art supply store across the road from the school where they were employees snagging discounted and damaged merchandise, hatching plans for group shows, and scoping-out cheap studio space.
In their mid-twenties, they weren’t exactly young, but at their age it was something of a novelty that they’d left their parents’ homes. The New York Times used the terms post-adolescence and pre-adult to describe their generation’s tendency to stave off responsibility by staying at home well into their twenties, allowing parents to take care of them, prolonging their childhoods or as some asserted, denying them the opportunity to have rewarding lives as adults. Worse, the phenomenon seemed propelled by parental guilt.
They knew they were going to be painters – that or pirates, as Jeff liked to joke – and besides, they could always move back home if they wanted to. They shared one full time position at Opus, lived frugally and sold the odd painting. Taking on the extra rent of the studio was a risk, but $1000 divided four ways was an awesome deal. The room was small, but the high ceilings made it less boxy. Thirty by forty divided into four spaces provided each painter with enough room to take three steps back from his easel to assess how things were progressing.
Once they’d settled into routines at the small space on Railway Street, they realized that noise was the biggest problem. Not external noise, but the noise they made themselves. None of them were being noisy, per se. It was the relentless accumulation of sounds – paintbrushes swishing in jars of water, panels being set on the cement floor, a dropped tube of paint smacking the floor.
If Mark had his way, the radio would stay on CBC as it rolled through intellectually stimulating Canadian content, but Bruce wanted free jazz that was too abrasive for Adam’s need for a much smoother ambience. Jeff, the least fussed about specific genres, solved the problem by finding a radio station that none of them liked, thus developing an absorbent backdrop for daily life. It distracted them from what they all needed and couldn’t have. Peace and quiet. Once they found the sweet spot, the volume never changed. The painters adapted well enough to the self-violation of their individual tastes in the name of group sanity. Indonesian gamelan music streamed 24/7 and somehow it worked. In fact, it was the rocket-fuel they needed. Until then, none of them had realized how much sound impacted their ability to maintain creativity.
Mid-afternoon most days they took a vote to reconvene at the Japanese restaurant down the street. The vote itself was an absurdist tip of the hat to their mutual interest in anarchist social theory and surrealist art. The results of the vote were meaningless. Unless one of them was doing the evening shift at Opus, they’d all wandered down to Aikoko to talk about art with plenty of hot sake to refill their tiny cups and two hours later they’d vote again to decide whether they were going back to the studio or carry on to the bar. In actuality, each of them decided individually and went on about his personal business regardless of the results of the vote. Their daily ritual, happy hour at Aikoko, was an extravagance they probably couldn’t afford, but couldn’t resist. It became known as taking a vote.
Over plates of deeply discounted spicy negitoro rolls and octopus sunomono conversation invariably turned to Jeff’s idea of using part of the studio space as a gallery where they could invite potential buyers to see their work. Adam maintained this would destroy the purity of the creative environment. He didn’t want to overhear customers prattling about the price of a painting, asking how many hours it took. They were striving for importance in unstable economic times. Turning their work space into a gallery was the road to selling-out and becoming commercial painters of pretty pictures. They may as well march single file over to the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and hurl themselves off one by one (or all together) to splatter against the surface of the icy grey waters that extend up into Indian Arm. That was Adam, though. Overly dramatic, but the others agreed; he had a point. This was how the idea of the museum came up. Adam suggested that a corner of the studio could be delegated a pop-up museum, not a gallery. Exhibitions in a museum would elevate their work to a higher degree of importance.
Bruce insisted that the museum should extend to the Japanese restaurant where they could informally present lectures-on-demand. He demonstrated his idea of venue flexibility by pretending to dump an imaginary envelope of imaginary paper dots onto the table.
“The individual dots represent topics,” Bruce explained. Jeff envisioned the project as pure whimsy, but Adam had a sense that it could actually be used to promote their paintings. To sell their paintings, which he wasn’t opposed to at all; he just didn’t want it to be happening while he was trying to paint them in the already too noisy studio.
They were all hoping that an imaginative art critic would attach a group moniker to their output, but nothing like that seemed even close to happening. The small shows they’d organized and promoted were ignored by the press. These were labor intensive events that involved transporting paintings to cafes and clothing stores onCommercial Driveor group shows in run-down rehearsal spaces with plugged toilets and leaky ceilings where musicians performed for friends. Their self-penned press releases tried to pass them off as a group of political artists with an appropriate amount of reverence for cultural associations that harked back to abstract expressionism in the fifties and sixties in New York, but they were clearly of no interest to local art critics. And really, painters should be painting, not lugging their work around town for stoned students to lean against while tripping out to the latest configuration of improvised free noise made with African hand drums, flutes and badly tuned electric guitars or pushing press releases under the noses of art critics writing for entertainment newspapers.
The very act of conniving to attract attention to their work made them unimportant. Musicians were expected to develop the cult of personality with rock ‘n roll affectations and bad behavior. Writers were obnoxious assholes who drunkenly pontificated in bars. Painters, if they were any damn good, would have been discovered already. Painters were supposed to paint quietly until someone noticed what they were up to. Clearly the four of them had no clout and if they continued to bleat about the political nature of their art and the association they made to important accomplishments in the middle of the previous century, they were in serious danger of never getting any press at all. At least they were aware of the existing prejudice, the dynamic they were flailing within.
The thought of bypassing reviews and shows to open a museum intrigued them, but at that point, sitting around the Japanese joint semi-smashed on sake, Jeff, Adam, Bruce and Mark had no idea that another avenue to success was opening up for them. Their names were sizzling like downed power lines during a midnight ice storm, jpegs of their paintings were being circulated and lauded as the next big thing – they were being taken very seriously by an art critic writing a piece for Artforum magazine, they were going to be offered exposure on the world’s most prestigious art stage – New York, New York.
Their big break was in motion while they discussed the museum as a way to feel better about their lack of progress with commercial galleries, the press and the development of a client base. They lacked customers. Adam joked that he’d apply for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and they agreed that spending a few hundred bucks to hire a publicist and handle the event would be a good idea. Take a vote. Meeting adjourned.
The board of the semi-imaginary museum, a conceptual retreat, would convene the following day to deal with the details of the opening exhibit to take place on one wall of the studio. That’s where they were at. The ad for a publicist went up on Craigslist and while none of them had formulated an image of who exactly might reply, it became obvious that they’d all assumed they’d be hiring a beautiful girl around their age dressed head-to-toe in black. The obviousness surfaced after an intense looking woman old enough to be their mother came into the Railway Street studio. The door squeaked closed behind her and the four of them stopped painting to go and deal with the unexpected problem. They were polite, but they certainly didn’t invite her in to see the space or show her their work. Jeff quickly explained the drawbacks of the short term position and without making eye contact, Mark hastily told her that they had several other people to see and they’d get back to her if need be. Nadine handed Jeff her resume and then, feeling very old, but mostly angry, she was back on the street within four minutes of having pulled open the heavy door. She knew exactly what had happened. What irked her most was that they assumed she didn’t.
The painters returned to their easels and waited for more replies to their ad, but none came. Adam had in fact done a bit of research online and deduced that they were not eligible to apply for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, but the toll free number and the rather lovely female name next to it emboldened him to phone Françoise Lacroix and ask if she had any ideas of where funding to open a small museum might come from. They were Canadian taxpayers after all – or at least at some point in their lives they might be.
Françoise asked Adam what kind of a museum it was and Adam realized they needed to be specific so he said they were opening a museum of political art.
“The Black Dot Museum of Political Art,” Adam said, thinking about the imaginary dots on the table at Aikoko. Françoise was intrigued enough to give him the number of a colleague at the Institute of Museums and Libraries in Washington, DC that connected Adam to Steve, a former skate punk from the all-ages club Françoise hung-out at as a student at Carleton University in Ottawa. Steve liked Adam’s story, the real story, not a fake story to secure funding; he liked the idea of a small museum set up by four guys who didn’t want to sell out. Three days later at the Japanese restaurant, Adam announced that he’d sent Steve a rough draft of a budget to operate a museum of political art for three years. Rent, general expenses and one full time employee.
Bruce dumped real paper dots out of a manila envelope and they all laughed at the absurdity of the situation. What if they actually got funding? What if they actually had to open a real museum?
With the dots – art movements through the ages – scattered across the table and no other responses to the ad on Craigslist, Adam unfolded Nadine’s resume and passed it around the table.
“What was the first show called?” Martin asked.
“A Call to Action – that was the anarchist exhibit. It was their work. The four painters. It intended to inspire viewers to include political content in their own creative self-expression,” Nadine said, quoting the press release she’d worked on and memorized.
Martin chuckled. Nadine straightened her glasses.
“Sounds a bit dry,” he said. “Is that really what anarchists are up to these days?”
“I think anarchists typically want to inspire people,” Nadine said, trying not to seem defensive. “In general, I think they would like to see more political content everywhere, not just in art.”